Microplastics in blood show need for rapid response to plastic waste | Latest news and scientific articles
The researchers found tiny plastic particles, less than a thousandth of a millimeter in size, in nearly 80% of the 22 people tested. Plastics this small can pass through the body and get stuck in our vital organs. These tiny pieces could damage cells and tissues, causing diseases like diabetes or cancer.
Half of the blood samples contained PET plastic found in drink bottles, food packaging and clothing. A third contained polystyrene found in packaging and a quarter of the polyethylene used in plastic bags. Levels and types of plastic varied from person to person and more studies are now needed.
Common Seas, a social enterprise seeking to stop plastic pollution, is a co-founder of the study. CEO Jo Royle said: “I was shocked but not surprised. We already knew that microplastics had been found in human placentas and organs. The body struggles to break down these particles, they cause an inflammatory response and are associated with chronic diseases.
Science estimates that plastic takes over 400 years to break down and it may never do. Data on microplastics in our seas show that even if plastic production had ceased in 2020, the number of particles would reach almost 1.5 million metric tons by weight by 2050. Oceans, lakes and rivers could contain more than double the current amount of plastic pollution by 2030, according to the UN.
Microplastics, caused by the breakdown of larger pieces, have spread throughout the natural world – from the polar ice caps to Mount Everest. We inhale them, eat them and drink them, and babies are exposed to worrying levels.
Scientists have also found that microplastics attract disease-causing bacteria and parasites, carrying them from land to sea. These pathogens threaten both wildlife and humans, ending up in our water and food. To stop this, the researchers suggest attaching filters to washing machines and dryers, better handling storms and sewage, and stopping plastics industries from releasing microplastics into the environment.
“Clearly the best way to fight microplastics and prevent health issues is to make sure they don’t end up in our environment in the first place,” Royle said. “That’s why we need leaders and businesses to take responsibility for plastic waste throughout its life cycle.”
Oil and gas companies that supply plastic products have made nearly $3 billion in profits every day for the past 50 years. The fossil fuel and petrochemical industry plans to increase plastic production and double production over the next 20 years.
But analysts say it would backfire on people, governments and industries rejecting plastic to protect the environment. Big brands are reducing plastic packaging and turning to alternatives. Plastic is seen as as big of a threat as climate change and a UN pollution treaty is the result.
Natural products like mushrooms, plant materials and even silk offer alternatives to plastic, especially in food and product packaging. But the UN thinks we can’t just recycle our solution to the problem. Immediate reduction and transformation of the industry is needed.
As the study on blood microplastics suggests, this transformation must be rapid. Because the rate at which we absorb plastic into our bodies is faster than the rate at which we eliminate it. And that requires a response on a planetary scale.